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The Success of Women Executives

Fri, 11/09/2012 - 4:26pm | by Elaine Hirsch

The making of a successful woman executive in business or government isn't a unique thing. What makes such women noticeable is that they've learned to master a career game that's been dominated by men for decades. Since the 1980s, such women have been earning more master's degrees in business, rising to higher positions, and becoming more and more visible to the general public and news media, some through great careers, others because they crashed and burned. Their stories in many cases are no different from their male counterparts' except for gender, and in many cases that one fact has made the challenges they faced much harder and these executives much stronger.

Indeed, misconceptions about their gender have themselves been one of the biggest challenges many women executives have had to overcome. Whether it be assumptions that women are more emotional, less strategic, less aggressive, or even less committed, the most famous female executives today have all faced such criticisms. All have had to make the choice at some point to protest sexist treatment, deal with it, use it to their advantage, or ignore it. 

Those who have been successful clearly found some way around or over or through sexism, but the problem still remains in the office. No matter how many stories are told, each woman executive today is likely to have to find her own path dealing with unfair assumptions about her performance at work.

Savvy women executives have quickly understood the value of mentors, particularly one higher up on the food chain. In cases where men have dominated the upper echelons of companies, those women who've managed to be mentored by such executives have frequently been promoted into the same position when the higher-up eventually retired or left.

Another challenge women executives face and must regularly overcome is their rarity. Given that women executives even in 2011 aren't so common, coworkers, news media, and the public look for flaws with extra scrutiny. Both Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman have faced such critiques in their careers. In Fiorina's case it ultimately cost her seat as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and for former eBay CEO Whitman it  undid her 2010 bid for the governorship of California.

The next few decades will likely present greater opportunities for women executives simply because of the fundamental shifts of the recession that began in 2008. The ongoing economic downturn has brought the termination of thousands of men from high-paying mid-level and executive positions nationwide. Companies may be jury-rigging their management now, but in time the need to replace these positions will arise.

Those who stand to benefit will be women in particular. Women now make up 50 percent of business school graduates across the US. For every position, there will be a female competitor looking to move up. Statistically, now couldn't be a better time for women to become executives going into the future. How this coming change will affect business remains to be seen. While men have traditionally claimed to be more strategically minded, women executives have proven their ability to network, leverage, and socially connect with power-brokers. To a great extent, their coming success will likely largely be a matter of who steps up to take what's available.


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